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“I’m not a garden expert in any sense of the meaning, only someone who blunders about in the shrubbery.”

If we were playing the dinner party game where you chose people, past or present, that you would like to meet, then one of mine would be Mirabel Osler. From the moment I heard of Dame Mirabel, I was captivated. Her free-spirited approach to life, gardening, and travel hold many truths for me. In her distinctive and unapologetic style, she is deeply inspiring yet rebellious and a rule-breaker. Her writing is charming, with never a mention of any usual garden how-to guides. Yet, her books have taught me far more than any other about the addictive pleasure we call gardening.

Woman with a Parasol in a Garden, Pierre-Auguste Renoir 

Mirabel Osler (1925 – 2016) was an English writer and garden designer from Shropshire in the United Kingdom. If you have not read or heard of her you are in for a treat when you do. Her books are wonderful especially, A Gentle Plea for Chaos, about her life with her husband Michael and the garden they established in Shropshire. She also wrote for several garden publications and was a regular writer for Hortus magazine. Her other books include; The Rain Tree, The Elusive Truffle: Travels In Search Of The Legendary Food Of France, A Breath from Elsewhere, Secret Gardens of France, The Garden Bench, The Garden Wall, In The Eye Of The Garden and Spoon With Every Course.

Octave Denis Victor Guillonnet
Conversation in the flower garden 1923

In her charming book “A Gentle Plea for Chaos, ” she shares her passionate and personal thoughts on design, the weather, plants, botanical illustrations, travels, water, visiting other people’s gardens, and much more. Her garden writing is much like the beloved garden ideal of floral chaos because Mirabel moves from her memories to garden truths to philosophy and still manages to be at once funny and stimulating. Mirabel delights us with her random ideas and wisdom that come to her in the garden as she goes about what she describes as ” blundering about in the shrubbery”, such as the comical account of “Fanciful garden deviants.”

I blame these fantasies on those isolated moments when, undemanded, garden ideas germinate.  I see I should have kept my head, but a part of gardening must surely have come from losing it?  Without being led astray from the known and tried, how would Charles Bridgeman have conceived the idea for the first ha-ha in 1712?  Vita Sackville-West contrived a clematis ‘table’ so that she could gaze lovingly into the upturned faces of the flowers; and wasn’t it Gertrude Jekyll who first thought of growing ramblers horizontally as ground cover?  Lady Anne Tree has a dressing table of yew, a four-poster bed made of clipped box with a vine canopy, a bedside table of ivies and an armchair of briar roses.  As for outlandish garden eccentricities, they burgeoned from the dotty nineteenth-century Frenchman Audot, who made whimsical fantasies from sculptured trees, and his batty compatriot the conductor Louis Antoine Jullien, who cut his evergreens in such a way that a howling gale played the opening bars of a Beethoven symphony, to the giant shell in which to bask at Strawberry Hill, and the invention of glass cucumber straighteners.  Thank God there’s no limit to fanciful garden deviants. 

Frederick Carl Frieseke 1874 – 1939, Hollyhocks 1912.

On reading Mirabel Osler’s books, I immediately recognised a kindred spirit as she permits the plants and herbs to grow quite wild and out of hand in her garden. And, as I do she loves the garden to be thick on the ground and profusely planted with no bare earth showing. Her plea is for all of us who love plants and gardening to do whatever we want; break free of the traditional rules of gardening, throw out the books and look beneath the surface of things to see what is happening. Let the plants decide what they want to do. We observe, learn or find out the growth habits of what we plant and then make decisions on where they go. She writes

“Every plant has its own way of filling space; without understanding this beforehand, how easily destroyed are those spaces which make the difference between a garden that sings and one in visual discord.”Mirabel Osler

Gustav Klimt, Bauerngarten mit Sonnenblumen, 1906

Mirabel Osler has an extraordinary insight into the simplicity of gardening that I find refreshing. She understands the waywardness of plants and the mental thrill of gardening but warns us that too much human intervention may deprive us of experiencing the pleasure of surprise in the garden.

“There is a point when your steadying hand should be lifted, and a bit of native vitality be allowed to take over.”

Roses in the Garden at Petit Gennevilliers
Gustave Caillebotte 1886 

Gardens are indeed a surprise. When I started gardening, I feverishly took to planting colour combinations and rose varieties and had no idea what I was creating. At times last season, I would look around the garden when in full bloom, heady with fragrance and an abundance of sensory roses, and think, “what have I done?”. Once created there is a commitment to the plants in the garden and as expressed in, The Little Prince, the time we spend in the garden or on a rose makes the plants or roses important.

It’s the time that you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. . . . People have forgotten this truth, But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Blanche-Augustine Camus

The gardener cannot take credit for the magical transformation of a garden Mirabel says. It is sometimes a happy accident of all the beautiful elements of vines, flowers, shrubs, ponds, walls, paths and trees that interact with the environment; the birdlife, insects, soil and weather and transform it into a garden. This interaction is paramount. Regardless of whether it is for ecological reasons or to create enchanting spaces, it is the same. So, her advice for us, would-be gardeners, is to make gardening decisions based on how the individual things we add to the garden interact rather than elements in isolation- the alchemy of gardening.

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”-Rachael Carson

The Garden In Flower, Claude Monet

This funny delightful writer has given me the confidence to become my own deviant in the garden, to throw out the rule book and be a bit eccentric. I’ve definitely made many mistakes, it’s chaotic in part but what I’m after in the garden is the freedom to create spaces that fit within the rural landscape that are uniquely ours. It will never be perfect, but it will at times be beautiful, a bit wild, never finished, constantly changing – enchanting and hopefully a little whimsical.

The Artist’s Garden at Giverny, Claude Monet

Mirabel and her husband Michael began their inspiring Shropshire garden after returning from living abroad for many years in Thailand and Corfu. They were in their late fifties by then and almost by accident began to transform their working farm into a chaotic garden masterpiece. A garden filled with small trees, stone paths, flowering shrubs and of course garden benches. Mirabel Osler’s writing career did not start until after her husband Michael passed away and she went on to win the Sinclair Consumer Press Garden Writer of the Year Award in 1988 and the Journalist of the Year Award from the Garden Writers Guild in 2003.

Another favourite book of Dame Osler’s to dive into time and again is “A Breath from Elsewhere”, and like all of her books, they are rare gems full of a deep understanding of what it means to have a garden. Mirabel has an uncanny sense of empathy and knows precisely the fears, joys, passions and guilt the gardener goes through in pursuing beauty. One of Dame Mirabel Osler’s books always accompanies me when I travel. They are perfect books to pick up to find some tidbit of humour, advice, a fascinating tale, or to read and be stunned by the extraordinary feats they achieved together in later life. Inspiring stuff indeed.

All content Di Baker 2022

Images of paintings as cited

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